Israel's Unsung Female Heroes

This year, the Dalai Lama's award went to two local women: Dr. Galia Sabar for her work on and with African migrant workers, and Ibtisam Mahammed for promoting peace.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

In the summer of 2005 Dr. Galia Sabar landed in West Africa at the airport of Accra, the capital of Ghana. Wearing a traditional Ghanaian garment, she waited expectantly for a familiar face to appear in the arrival hall. After a few tense minutes, she suddenly saw someone waving frantically at her: "Galia, Galia - there she is. I don't believe it. Hallelujah, hallelujah, God bless. Listen everyone: She came from Israel to see me."

The woman greeting her was Charity, a Ghanaian who had lived in South Tel Aviv for a number of years, where she worked as a cleaner. The women met when Sabar, a lecturer on African studies at Tel Aviv University, interviewed Charity for her research on migrant workers from Africa living in Israel. She was struck by the independent woman's personality and they became close friends. However, in 2004 Charity was rounded up by the Immigration Police and earmarked for deportation. Sabar posted a bond for her release and Charity stayed at the lecturer's home while awaiting her deportation back to Ghana.

Fighting the stigma

The reason for Sabar's visit to Ghana was to follow those African workers who had been deported from Israel during the period of mass deportations at the beginning of the decade. Few academics are interested in African migrant workers in Israel, and before Sabar, no one had followed them back to Africa, to learn how their lives had changed after years of working in Israel. The academic was recently awarded the Unsung Heroes of Compassion prize, granted by the Dalai Lama, for combining research activity with social action. Sabar and peace activist Ibtisam Mahammed of Fureidis are the first Israelis among the 50 extraordinary men and women worldwide who have received the award this year.

"In my mind, Africa is [represented by] the people. Not the institutions. Not the states and not the rulers. Africa is the power of the individual," says Sabar, 46, who has been researching the continent for more than 20 years. During her student days, she traveled to Ethiopia as a tour guide; she was also involved in the preparations for Operation Moses, in which Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Sudan to Israel during 1984 and 1985. "Officially, I was a tour guide, but I carried information and money to local Jews, with the promise that Israel would help them."

Sabar met with Ethiopian Jews in their country of origin and later also worked to promote awareness of Ethiopian culture in Israel. "After I saw the racism and the human horrors these people had experienced, I traveled the country with a set of slides to fight the stigma," she says.

Sabar does not look African at all - she is a pale blond with blue eyes. "I'm the ultimate other in Africa. When I came to Ethiopia in 1982, children and women would look at me and run away crying. My color looks sick to them, unhealthy."

Sabar says she is aware of the gap between her and the subjects of her research. "I will never be able to put myself into the mind a poor African woman. I will always be a white, Western woman, educated and well-off. But I can let that voice speak through me, which is what I am in fact doing. Thanks to my familiarity with African culture, it is easier for me to connect with people. When I go into a church in South Tel Aviv I know how to sing the songs and do the dances."

Sabar recently published a book on her research on African migrant workers in Israel ("We're Not Here to Stay: African Migrant Workers in Israel and Back in Africa," published by Tel Aviv University Press).

'Knowledge is power'

The Unsung Heroes prize is awarded by Wisdom in Action, an organization that encourages scientists and academics to apply their knowledge for the general good. "I believe that as researchers, we not only have the right but also the duty to work toward change," says Sabar. "Knowledge is power. Academia must recognize this action as part of its being."

Ibtisam Mahammed, who won the award along with Sabar, relates that initially she was surprised that the Buddhist Dalai Lama was giving her a prize. However, she says, "When I read about it and spoke with other people who had won the prize, I realized that Buddhism is not that different from my own religion. Allah, God, Buddha - it really doesn't matter."

For many years now Mahammed has been organizing Jewish and Arab "women's circles" to promote dialogue about peace. She heads a number of women's peace organizations and has also fought on behalf of battered women in Arab society. While other Arab peace activists despaired of dialogue after October 2000 (in the wake of violent clashes between Arab Israelis and police), Mahammed says these events actually prompted her to go out and act.

"After October 2000, I realized how cut off Israelis were from our sector, and how much they didn't know about us," she says. "Close friends did not want to visit us at home in Fureidis. This is why I did not stop working after the clashes. I forgot about myself entirely. I would be away from home for days in order to increase awareness in Israeli society. Fureidis is so close to Zichron Yaakov and Binyamina, and still people don't know anything about us."



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